Cuomo and the Left in New York: The Great Unraveling

04/22/2014 01:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2014

The speed by which political shifts take place has grown exponentially. The Internet and television dominate the political and chattering classes and what we hear there immediately spills over into the realm of real people.

If you need proof of that assertion, take a peek at what's happened to New York's formerly fearsome Governor Andrew Cuomo. He stomped all over a right-wing Republican in 2010, assumed office with a combination of decisiveness and a willingness to kick the opposition wherever and whenever it hurt most. The mechanics of state government improved immediately, with on-time budgets and swift enactment of big legislative reforms.

He consciously moved hard left on social and identity issues. Gay marriage, gun control and abortion rights were jammed through the process and he became the darling of the gay rights and woman's movement. He spoke about ethics reform and pilloried the legislature for ethical lapses. He raised $33 million to run for re-election.  Invincible, he seemed.

But he also embraced the broad economic philosophy of the Tea Party and the austerity bugs. Cut taxes, especially for the 1 percent. Cut government spending. Increase corporate subsidies. Beat up public sector unions, including the teachers and embrace charter schools. This was as right-wing an economic agenda as the identity/social stuff was left. He became a "progractionary" a new kind of Democrat who combined hard left social policies and hard right economics. Hillary be damned, this could be a pathway for 2016.

Maybe he thought he could average the two far-out agendas and appear as a moderate. If that was the theory it's backfired. Where a month ago he was riding high and likely to crush a Tea Party Republican opponent, a poll out Tuesday shows he could end up with as little as 39 percent of the vote.

The erosion comes from the Left. As politically appreciative as New Yorker's have been on gay marriage and guns, the tax and spending cuts have left him being defined as "Governor 1%" in the piquant phrase of liberal activist Billy Easton of the Alliance For Quality Education. And the Working Families Party, the left-wing muscle in New York, is in open revolt. If they run their own candidate, Cuomo's poll numbers drop to 39 percent against Rob Astorino, an unknown Republican opponent. And that's a calamity for anyone with national ambitions much less seeking re-election in the very blue state of New York.

Ideas matter, and economic ideas matter most it turns out. Powerful forces in the Democratic Party see the future in terms of demographics, emerging Latino and Asian voters and women, and identity issues such as gay rights. It's a real trend to be sure. But the fate of Andrew Cuomo is a powerful reminder that the progressive tradition has lasted over a century because it embraces more than the necessary struggle for liberation of oppressed communities. When it wins elections, be it Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt, or Bill Clinton, it speaks to a vision of economic fairness and shared prosperity. Watch the upcoming battle for the WFP line and the debate about what it means to be a progressive. More than just Andrew Cuomo's electoral chances hang in the balance.